Chatham Co. District Attorney to push for tougher juvenile laws

Jerry Chambers, Jr. (Source: Chatham County Sheriff's Office)
Jerry Chambers, Jr. (Source: Chatham County Sheriff's Office)
(Source: WTOC/file)
(Source: WTOC/file)

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap spoke with WTOC about the 2016 case that they lost against Jerry Chambers, Jr. The teen who is now facing felony murder charges after a shooting and deadly police chase in downtown Savannah.

A juvenile court judge acquitted Chambers who was facing aggravated assault and attempted armed robbery charges after a woman was shot in the Savannah Mall parking lot in June of 2016.

Despite my report yesterday about court documents alluding to another suspect who was possibly never charged, Heap was adamant that they did have enough evidence to convict.

She says prosecutors were forced to fight the case in Juvenile Court but they originally fought to keep the case in Superior Court. She says the judge not only considered the fact that the charges were reduced to attempted robbery, but the decision to move a case back to juvenile court also considers factors like prior criminal history.

According to court documents, this was Chambers first offense and his attorney argued that he had a good support system at home.

But Heap says the tough part about juvenile court cases is that the decision is all up to one person.

"You know, it was a two-day trial. We put up over 40 pieces of evidence. We put scores or witnesses. We fought that case. We fought it hard but the judge makes the decision on that matter, and here we are," Heap said.

Heap will be the first to tell you there are too many limitations when it comes to going after kids committing violent crimes.

There are certain types of violent crimes that will allow children to be tried as adults in Superior Court. Some call it the seven deadly sins. It includes rape and murder; all other offenses are tried in Juvenile Court. This includes shooting someone and juvenile gang crimes.

If convicted, the punishment is a lot lighter and according to the DA, it's likely adult gangs are using juveniles to get around the system.

Chambers has been a member of the gang "Only the Mob" according to Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Chief Jack Lumpkin.

"This is the conundrum here. Juvenile Court wants to take the child out of the situation. I'm all for that but I'm also all for, if you're committing a violent crime, then you need to be held accountable," Heap said.

She says over the last few years they've seen a spike in the number of violent crimes that they are prosecuting in Juvenile Court. Crimes like aggravated assault and gang violence are not considered Superior Court cases and must be tried in Juvenile Court only. But Heap believes gang members know the system and are using it to their advantage.

"The theory behind it is if the juvenile commits the crime, he's going to get less time," Heap said.

Heap has already been talking to state lawmakers and is scheduled to meet with other DA's around the state about how they can get more flexibility in the law.

"That is something I will take to the table when I meet the other DA's around the state to determine what changes we want to see in the law coming up for the next legislative session," she said.

That could also include crimes like aggravated assault.

When it comes to Chambers, he was originally charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault. He was going to be tried in Superior Court but when there was no evidence that any money was stolen, the charged was reduced to attempted armed robbery. And even though the aggravated assault charge remained, his case was still sent to Juvenile Court even though a 63-year-old victim was shot.

Heap says as much as she wants to help rehabilitate many of the juveniles in the community, she also believes the system may not be tough enough on violent offenders.

"Who cares because someone has been hurt and killed here, that's what breaks my heart," Heap said.

She says she will be working with lobbyists at the Prosecuting Attorney's Council later this year. This is the same group that helped pass the law requiring the state to alert communities when a violent offender is released from prison.

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